John Arquilla Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

International Relations in the Information Age: Conversation with John Arquilla, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; March 17, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Challenges Posed by Networks

A major issue and a concern of your work is the Information Age, network societies. What turned you on to that subject?

During the Gulf War, I was assigned to General Schwarzkopf as a strategic consultant from the RAND Corporation. Observing what was going on and making my own suggestions, it became apparent very early on that the last Gulf War was a lot like a chess game in which we could see all the pieces and Saddam Hussein could only see his pieces, and that this made a very, very great difference. As a classic bombs-and-bullets guy, I had my eyes open to the possibilities of something else going on. So when I returned from working for the Central Command, I started talking with my colleague David Ronfeldt about this. David has had a profound shaping effect on my world view. He had been thinking about the information revolution as a cyber guy. I, of course, was a war guy. And so together -- you know, Hegelian dialectic -- we ended up with a synthesis of cyber-war, and we were off and running from that point.

The body of your work addresses some of the big questions and then works its way down to looking at the particular case studies. Before we get into the different realm, let's talk a little about theory. What exactly is the consequence of the Information Age for the way we organize ourselves?

What we're finding is that tremendous interconnectivity means we no longer have to have hierarchical chain of command, either in the military or in business or, frankly, in society at large. We can do a great deal of self-organizing. The network form itself is tremendously empowered. We've already seen this in the business world back in the 1990s: American productivity greatly increased because of this lateral connection between people in all parts of companies and across companies. We see it a little bit emerging in the military, particularly in the Afghan campaign, where only three hundred of our Special Forces, but well-connected with each other and with aircraft up above, were able to topple al Qaeda and the Taliban from control very, very quickly and easily. So it's this network form that's empowered. It's also empowering the rise of global civil society. You have seen that over the course of the past year in the various movements to try to head off a second war with Iraq. The long delays in that war had very much to do with the network of civil society -- actors imposing constraints on the United States and its allies.

When you talk about networks, your interest is not just in the wire, so to speak, or the connections, but the organizational formats that follow from that. Explain what that means.

Sure. In the 1920s and 1930s, networks were identified as any way you're wired together. Telephony was the basis of networking. Then in the 1940s and 1950s, anthropologists came along and said, "Wait a minute, it's not wires; it's whoever you talk to." That was social networks. This, of course, was very amorphous. So what Ronfeldt and I have tried to do is build on a business literature and identify three basic network forms, one of them being the simple chain. You want to move something, you move it in chains where you know who's in front of you and who's behind you, but perhaps little else.

Give us an example of that.

Smugglers, arms people -- whoever smuggles things works in chains.

Another is a hub and spokes. That's very simple to envision. In the 9/11 attacks on America, it looked like Mohammed Atta was the hub with those nineteen spokes radiating out from him, one of which we had in custody before the attack. A network like that is very powerful as long as the hub is secure. You take out the hub, everyone is crippled, but it can leave many of the spokes and still function.

The last form is where everyone connects to everyone else, a little bit like the notion of peer-to-peer computing. The power of that kind of organization is absolutely enormous, particularly in social activist settings.

Whatever form the particular network takes, what is going on within the processes of that network is consulting, coordinating, acting jointly to accomplish something.

Yes. The social behavior of a network is quite different than a hierarchy, in that decision-making is often consensual in nature; that is, what people choose becomes the path they take. It's not very centrally controlled by any means. The most successful networks don't have a step-by-step script of their actions, even though they have a sense of a great goal that they want to achieve. It's a little bit like ants, who identify the carcass of a worm that they want to get. The word comes back to others, "the worm is over there," and ants will send out many, many different trails. The ones that turn out to be the easiest, the quickest, turn out to be the ones that more people go to, but there's an absolute multitude of trails that are set up. Our work there is called swarmed intelligence. The people in the entomology business have figured out a lot about cross-connections and networking. Ants do it, of course, with their pheromones; we do it with our cell phones.

So there are analogs in your work across the social dimension. But you're suggesting that in studies of biology and cells and so on, you see similar patterns of activity?

Quite a bit. How is it that so many of these insects and animals that are basically leaderless are able to do things in such efficient fashion? There are really wonderful examples there for us to learn from. For someone who's involved with military affairs, the interesting point is that militaries train their officers to do something they call "command and control." But if you're involved with a network, maybe what you really want to do is engage in "command and decontrol." Allow the network to do its job.

I made this suggestion to the admiral who was working during Operation Enduring Freedom to support our Special Forces, and he made a remarkable choice, the first time in the Navy's history. Every time a plane takes off from a carrier it's called a sortie. The Navy chose to allow three-fourths of all the sorties to go off with no target designated. Usually, that is the reverse ratio -- three out of four, you want to tell them exactly where to go if you're in command. This admiral decided, "No, I don't want to do that. I'm going to let them hook up with the network of Special Forces and unmanned vehicles, and B-52s and gunships, and they'll figure out how to organize, and they'll do this on the spot." They did, and the efficiency increased. The allocative efficiency increase was enormous. In the last Gulf War, I often saw that it took between eight and ten hours from the time you identified a target to the time you hit. In Afghanistan, it was often eight to ten minutes. Tremendous gain.

So you're suggesting that at one level, networks go with our times in a sense that it's not just the technology, but the emphasis on decentralization, on autonomy, on drawing on the skills and intelligence of the guy in the field who is doing the job, and therefore, needs to adapt to the special contours of the geography and the social interactions, or whatever?

Exactly so, Harry. It's a tremendously important point that this isn't just about technology. This is about organization, about doctoring; that is, beliefs about how to engage one's opponents, or one's competitor in a market. It's also about formulation of strategy coming from below rather than from above. We tend to think always of the principles of war as being tied to the great generals. Well, it turns out that many of the great ideas bubble up from below.

Next page: The Structure of Networks

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